I’ve long planned to have a virtual sit-down with Winnipeg crime writer Doug Whiteway and I’m very happy that he has accepted the invitation.
Prior to turning to crime, Doug Whiteway worked as a writer and editor for, among others, the Winnipeg Free Press and The Beaver magazine. He still keeps a hand in nonfiction editing and writing alongside his career as a mystery novelist.
He has published seven mystery books under the pen name C. C. Benison. The first, Death at Buckingham Palace, featured Jane Bee, a Canadian who flukes her way into a job as a maid in the Queen’s household and solves the crime with an assist from none other than Her Majesty. There were two more in this series: Death at Sandringham House and Death at Windsor Castle. Staying with England as a setting, Whiteway/Benison’s most recent books follow the exploits of Father Tom Christmas, the new vicar in the village of Thornford Regis. Twelve Drummers Drumming came out in 2011, followed by Eleven Pipers Piping and the most recent, Ten Lords A’ Leaping. He hasn’t neglected his home town either; Death in Cold Type is set in Winnipeg.
See the C. C. Benison website here: www.ccbenison.com and our e-chat below.
CM: Like me, you chose a member of the clergy as a protagonist of your current series. Father Tom Christmas is an Anglican priest in the small English village of Thornford Regis. What drew you to that subject matter?
DW: I’m not entirely sure I’ve explained it to myself, but even though I’m happy to read detective novels where the investigator is a professional –– either a private detective or a member of a police force -– I’m more attracted to writing a character who is essentially an amateur detective, a somewhat ordinary person who is thrust into solving a crime through force of circumstance. It may be partly that I think ordinary people can solve problems if they put their heads to it or it may be that I don’t want to spend much time in the head of a policeman. I’m not sure. Anyway, what attracted me more specifically to a clergyman is partly that a priest or minister or rabbi has the benefit of being more likely to be granted entrance into people lives and homes than people in many other professions or walks of life. They’re counsellors and problem solvers and, in a village milieu, community leaders, so it seems less likely to strain readers’ credulity if they involve themselves in the resolution of a crime. I’m also attracted to the moral dilemmas that a priest may face. Clerics, I think (though perhaps I’m being unrealistic) are obliged to consider some of the wider implications of their actions and those of others.
CM: The setting in the Father Christmas books feels very authentic to me. How do you get all those details right and prevent Canadianisms from sneaking through?
DW: I think, suffering as I do from anglophilia, that I’ve spent a lot of time either consciously, or just below the surface of consciousness, paying attention to the speech patterns and vocabulary of the British and to various aspects of their culture. It started early. My ancestry is English and Scottish; two of my grandparents were born in the U.K (one in Devon, which is the setting of the Fr. Christmas mysteries); there was very little Can Lit growing up, so a lot of what I read as a child or young adult was produced in the U.K. or set there or the like. Then, when I was a teenager, there was the British Invasion in music and pop culture, which had a reinforcing effect. I’ve been to England lots of times, particularly during the writing of the Father Christmas series and the earlier Jane Bee series, so that helps in soaking up detail and atmosphere. As for the Father Christmas books, their authenticity owes something to the fact that the fictional Thornford Regis is based very much on an actual south Devon village named Stoke Gabriel, so the street patterns, the major buildings (like the pub and the church) and the landscape is, in a way, a kind of faithful journalistic recording –– only I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent, or the guilty, as the case may be. And, of course, these days, there’s so much available on the Internet. You can download BBC and ITV TV programs easily, listen to BBC live or on podcast, or visit parts of England through Google street view. Even for all that, Canadianisms likely do creep in, but the person most likely to catch them first is my American editor, who’s pretty much an anglophile herself.
CM: It must be the archivist in me, but I love reading Madrun’s letters in the Father Christmas books, complete with typos, of course. Can you talk about Madrun’s epistolary voice and how it came to you?
DW: I would love to answer this question thoroughly, but search my mind as I might I can’t recall what exactly suggested an epistolary voice to me. A little of it may be that I wanted to play a bit with the storytelling conventions of the crime novel, but where the notion of letters came from I’m not sure. Clearly, a piece of brain has gone missing. Once I’d determined to have letters, however, I modeled them after the letters my mother and her sisters would write to each other. In the days when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, they would write frequently to each other, and in a breezy, chatty, completely unselfconscious style, complete with crossings-out and reconsidered thoughts. When I wrote Madrun’s letters, I would try to replicate the way they wrote letters (or the way I imagined they wrote letters); that is, quickly and with no concern for literary effect. Of course, when you’re creating them as fiction for a wider audience, speed and no concern for literary effect go out the window.
CM: Ten Lords A’ Leaping is your seventh mystery novel and the third Father Christmas book. How has the mystery fiction landscape changed since your first book?
DW: I think years ago I would have said the meat of a mystery is the puzzle and the sizzle is the characterization and the setting, but today I would say it’s the other way around (though crime novels with rich settings and fine characterization is the continuation a longish trend, helping a little to erase boundaries between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction.) I think, too, there’s a greater reader interest within Canada, and outside the country as well, in Canadian settings and characters than there was in decades past, not to mention there are more Canadian writers working within the genre than ever before. These are good things. On a less cheerful note, what has changed in more recent years is the increasing difficulty of getting published and generating revenue from publication due in large measure to the consolidation of publishers into larger and larger conglomerates seeking the new blockbuster and the dampening effect of Amazon on prices (great for the consumer, not great for the producer).
CM: How do you feel about the conventions of the mystery genre now? Are you constrained by them, comforted by them, or are you tempted to defy them?
DW: All three actually, and sometimes all at the same time. One of the pleasures of the genre is working within a highly organized structure and recognized conventions. You’re provided with bare bones that you can enflesh with your own characters and ideas. I think this can be particularly useful if you’re starting out writing fiction: there are so many things you have to get right in a novel that will attract readers, why not have at least have some part of it already provided for you? (I’ve always liked the idea of infiltrating genre forms and filling them up with ideas or subversive notions –– not that I’ve ever done it myself!) That said, the conventions can be a bit constraining at times. While rationality lies at the heart of crime fiction, the neat resolution that comes at the end of each novel rarely mirrors what we know real life (so-called) to be, so there are moments when I’d like, say, to write a more ambiguous ending, though I know readers would find this most unsatisfying. I think by and large the conventions have to be respected, so if I find myself tempted to defy them––and I do––then the solution is to work within another genre. (See next question.)
CM: One of your novels, Death in Cold Type, is set in Winnipeg. Do you think you might do another Winnipeg book sometime?
DW: Yes! I’ve completed a manuscript for a novel set largely in Winnipeg and along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg (though there are excursions to Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and New York). The working title is “Paul is Dead” and it follows two characters who face the consequences forty years later of a crime they committed in their youth, in the late 1960s. It’s more of a howdunnit and whydunnit (whodunnit you’ll learn in the first few pages and the victim’s name is in the title.) If it has to be categorized (and publishers love categories!) it would be in the realm of psychological thriller.